Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by by Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson
Return to The Business of Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
The two of us first decided to join forces to write a mystery-romance entitled Path of the Jaguar. While on vacation in the Yucatan, we both became interested in using this exotic place as a setting. Although we were accustomed to editing each other's work, writing a book together was an entirely new concept. Working with a co-author, as we soon found out, is much different than going it alone, and has both its challenges and its rewards.
Whose Idea Was This, Anyway?
As we were soon to discover, one of the strongest advantages of having a co-author is that you now have another person with whom to brainstorm ideas. We explored several different possibilities by asking "what if?" What if a woman was on her way to a new job on an archaeological dig in the Yucatan? What if the friend she was travelling with mysteriously disappeared at the airport? Having someone to exchange ideas with virtually eliminates writer's block. By building on each other's imagination, we soon came up with an idea that intrigued both of us, one we felt we could successfully develop into a story. Neither of us would have thought of this particular idea alone, but by building upon each other's suggestions, we agreed upon a beginning that we felt would work for both of us.
Plotting the Book
An idea is a good starting place, but a successful novel is much more than an interesting scenario. The hardest part of creating a book is plotting. Many authors are so eager to get to the actual writing that they skip the necessary pre-work. It pays to give the structure serious thought before you begin, for the finished novel will never be any stronger than its premise.
When writing with someone else, it is essential to have a workable plot skeleton. After returning from our vacation, we realized that if we were serious about co-authoring a novel, we must start with a tight plot outline. Before writing the first page, we created a rough chapter-by-chapter plan.
Having a good plot outline is like having a road map on a cross-country trip. Sure, you can get there or at least somewhere without it, but it makes the journey easier. It does not need to be lengthy or involved. Before beginning, you decide on the length of the book, how many chapters are needed, and how many pages will be in each chapter. You should have at least a paragraph for each chapter that states which characters will appear, what events take place, and how the action will propel the story forward. It helps to end each chapter with a question. Where is Delores? Who was the mysterious stranger at the airport, and what did he have to do with her disappearance?
We may not list or even know ahead of time every scene, and we may even make drastic changes as to direction, but we do have a solid sense of where the book is leading. By preparing a rough outline, you can make sure that each clue that is planted and every event that is included contributes toward the ending effect. Every scene you write must be an integral part of an ultimate goal.
When working with someone else, it is important to have exactly the same visual image of each person who appears in the story. It is essential to do a short biographical sketch that includes not only a physical description, but also personality and character traits. You don't want people who morph like chameleons at each shift of author, changing hair color and eye color on every other chapter. Even more important, they must maintain their unique viewpoints and act accordingly. For consistency's sake, we write biographies and made detailed descriptions so characters won't mysteriously change appearance and personality.
Before we began writing Path of the Jaguar, we made a five-page outline and a one-page biographical sketch of the six main characters and the role each would play in the novel.
Dividing the Labor
Through trial and error, every writing team eventually finds the most effective way to go about the business of writing. Loretta and I divided our rough drafting into assigned chapters. What one wrote, the other polished and looked over for errors and for clarity. Having your partner serve as editor eliminates the necessity of extensive rewriting. We are careful to check each bridge or transition between chapters to give the manuscript a sense of continuity, as if it were written by one person rather than two.
v In the course of writing the book, it is important to discuss any serious changes in the plot outline the moment they arise, for one small change can have a domino effect on following chapters.
Troubleshooting Your Partnership
Writing together requires the art of compromise. When working alone, all the decisions are yours to make. When you have a co-author, you now have someone else who is involved in every decision. This can cause power plays and struggles of will that have nothing at all to do with writing, and can turn your sister act or husband-wife team into miserable a tug of war.
To successfully write together, partners must share a basic idea of what they consider good writing. A compatible writing partner will not continually run a pen through your best passages, or start turning the mystery you've agreed upon into a science fiction novel.
A good partner will build upon what you have written and actually improve it, and stay within the confines of the planned outline. For this to happen, it is essential to have a common goal in mind and work toward that goal. Because we are sisters, the two of us naturally share many of the same interests, experiences, and memories, which has been a strong advantage.
Most breakups of partnerships are caused by petty differences that could be resolved. If a problem surfaces -- such as you are putting more time into the project than your partner, or your co-author is making changes you don't approve of -- you need to talk it over or resentment will build. Glitches, even minor ones, must be worked out for a partnership to survive, and that means the line of communication remains open at all times. By writing together we have learned the importance of putting aside small differences for the sake of the finished product. In collaboration, there is no room for jealousy or competition. You have to maintain a very professional relationship and be open to both criticism and compromise. It must be an equal partnership. The most important thing is being able to compromise for the greater good of the project.
Sometimes life interferes. Your partnership may be jeopardized for reasons beyond your control, such as a move, one partner taking a demanding job that cuts into writing time, the birth of a child, or an illness that interrupts productivity. It is advisable to have a mutually agreeable contract to cover the rights to any jointly written works and the royalties involved in case one partner should die or decide to discontinue the partnership.
Writing with someone else can be an enriching and rewarding experience. One of the greatest advantages in writing as a team is that we are able to work a lot faster together than we could alone.
Writing can be a lonely business. Another unexpected joy of being part of a co authorship is having someone else who cares equally about the success of the finished manuscript, who shares with you every step of the way the disappointment of rejection slips and the pleasure of success.
We are often asked, "Do you have to sacrifice creativity to write with another person?" The answer is a definite no. Working together increases the flow of ideas. The merging of our individual creativity produces a novel neither one of us would have created alone, yet one that is uniquely our own.
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.
Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson have co-authored over forty mystery and suspense titles that include Path of the Jaguar, Arctic Legacy, The Vanished Lady and Nightmare in Morocco. They are also authors of the ebook Fiction: From Writing to Publication. Please visit their blog at http://vbritton.blogspot.com/.